ronan and erwan bouroullec: textile field

16 September – 29 October 2011
The Raphael Gallery
Victoria & Albert Museum
Textile Field is part of The London Design Festival

Textile Field, Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec – by Jane Withers

Prior to the Bouroullec’s intervention, the concession to furniture in the V&A’s Raphael gallery was minimal: four angular benches marooned along the centre line of the colossal court offered stiff respite. For a few days during the London Design Festival, much of the 600 sq meter mosaic floor will be taken up by ‘Textile Field,’ a softly sculpted platform 30 meters long and 8 meters wide. Essentially a giant bed that inclines gently towards a wide central gulley, providing a comfortable angle to view the huge cartoons hanging on either side of the room. Upholstered in subtly gradated stripes of greys, blues and greens, the effect is a bit like introducing a slab of hazy landscape into the museum.

On the surface the Bouroullecs are simply installing a temporary viewing platform in the Raphael Gallery, but it’s implications may be more far reaching. Their underlying subject is our relationship to art, and whether more contemporary forms of furniture might help build a bridge across the centuries, bringing a 21st century perspective to how we engage with a historic work that is considered among the greatest works of Renaissance art in Britain, but arguably has been slightly sidelined by declining interest in Raphael since the zenith of his reputation in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Textile Field is typical of the Bouroullecs in that it is playful and open ended, a sensual space for the user’s imagination: quite literally a vast field for museum visitors to make their own. The Studio’s mock-ups show figures standing and walking on the springy surface, reclining singly and in groups with a languor not usually seen in museums. It remains to be seen how people will react, but visitors will be given socks and shoe bags and perhaps subtly encouraged to discard conventional museum behaviour along with their footwear. Ronan Bouroullec describes the atmosphere they envisage as ‘lascivious reverie, a more sensual experience in which you are a little bit more open to be touched, to dream’.

Colour is another important aspect of the Bouroullecs’ work, and Textile Field brings a totally different colour experience to the Raphael Gallery. It is composed of 13 shades of Kvadrat’s Hallingdal fabric; arranged in bands of greys, green blues, blues, blue greens and greens that blend across the 30-meter stretch. The luminous haze is reminiscent of the otherworldly blue green landscapes that hover in the distance in Renaissance paintings. It is a delicate trick that subtly connects the contemporary interloper to the renaissance works on the walls, as landscapes feature more or less prominently in all of the Raphael Cartoons. And what could be nicer than lying in a field surrounded by great art?

Raphael and the V&A

The Raphael Gallery, the largest of the V&A’s galleries, houses the seven surviving ‘cartoons’ painted by Raphael (Raffaello Santi 1483–1520) as designs for a cycle of tapestries commissioned in Rome in 1515 by Pope Leo X to hang in the Sistine chapel on the walls beneath the frescoed ceiling by his contemporary Michelangelo. Although originally intended as designs to guide the weavers in Flanders, they are now considered among the greatest works of the High Renaissance. Owned by the British Royal Family since 1623, they have been on loan to the Museum since 1865.

The word ‘cartoon’ is derived from the Italian cartone – ‘a large piece of paper’ – referring to the full-size preparatory design, made of joined-up strips of paper, for an artwork in another medium, in this case tapestries as a guide for the weavers in Brussels. The Raphael cartoons tapestry cycle depicts the acts of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, founders of the early Christian church including a meticulously detailed scene depicting The Miraculous Draught of the Fishes.

By the early 17th century, seven of the ten cartoons – still in strips – found their way to Genoa most likely to be used to weave further sets of tapestries, until they were purchased by Charles I of England as models for tapestries woven in the Mortlake Manufactory. One of the Mortlake cycle now hangs in the Raphael Gallery. The shift in the cartoons’ perception to be considered as works of art in their own right did not occur until the end of the 17th century when Raphael reached the peak of his reputation. William III ordered the strips to be reintegrated as part of the Royal Collection and displayed at a gallery designed by Sir Christopher Wren at Hampton Court Palace. At the peak of Victorian reverence for Renaissance Art and Raphael in particular, Queen Victoria’s permanent loan of the Raphael cartoons to the V&A in 1865 represented a seal of royal approval to the establishment of the Museum’s Paintings Collection.

Kvadrat collaborations

The internationally leading producer of contemporary textile Kvadrat has had close links with pioneering designers, architects and artists since it was founded in Denmark in the late 1960s, and in the last decade forged a series of significant collaborations with international figures including Olafur Eliasson, Thomas Demand, Roman Signer, Rosemarie Trockel, David Adjaye, Peter Saville, Patricia Urquiola and Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec among others.

The latest in the series, Textile Field, a project by French designers Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec for the London Design Festival at the Victoria & Albert Museum is a dramatic temporary ‘occupation’ of the Raphael Gallery that, for a few days at least, offers visitors a radically different perspective on one of the most important surviving works of the High Renaissance: a subtly altered state that aims to bring a different atmosphere and emotional pitch to the museum environment.

These innovative commissions not only showcase Kvadrat textiles, but just as importantly for a company where experimentation is central to their philosophy, allow their collaborators a free platform to push the boundaries of textiles and explore the mutating conditions of 21st century life. According to Anders Byriel CEO of Kvadrat: ‘These collaborations act as an important stimulus. Each of these projects take us somewhere new and somewhere we would never have expected. They make us think a little differently about space and our environments’.